Physical scientists have a healthy attitude toward the history of their subject: by and large we ignore it. — PJE Peebles, cosmologist. (From an article on the history of cosmology, in The Big Bang and George Lemaitre, 1984.)

Welcome to Cosmology and the History of Wonder. This course is a COLL 100 course for the new W&M curriculum.

Our course is organized around a few great questions. One of the questions we will explore is:

What is science, and how is it different from other human activities like philosophy, religion, or art? 

In order to explore this question we will examine various theories of the cosmos, from ancient to modern, and use an approach that is informed by the historical development of these ideas. This is not a history of science course. It is a science course that takes the history of its subject seriously. This will help us to understand why some ideas about the nature of the world have survived, while others are now neglected.

History can be thought of as a giant hairball, with many interconnecting and tangled threads that form a complicated bundle. We cannot hope to understand the entire hairball, so instead we reach in and pull out one or two particular threads and try to understand the stories associated with them, recognizing that however carefully we do this, we are only ever looking at a small part of a very big story.

Along the way we will acquaint ourselves with the physical content of modern theories of the cosmos, and the methods used to test those theories. We are living in a revolutionary moment for astronomy and cosmology. To understand the nature of the current ferment of ideas and discovery it helps to look at prior periods of great discovery. The story arc carries us over several thousand years, so we will have to simplify the historical narrative dramatically. We do this by choosing a few representative threads in this long history, by examining in detail a few case studies of particularly important discoveries, and then by showing how they connect across time and space.

Eugene R. Tracy, ertrac@wm.edu
Chancellor Professor and Chair of Physics
Director of the Center for the Liberal Arts, and
Alfred Ritter Term Professor
College of William & Mary